Beyond basic bubbles, shampoos for horses offer many of the same cosmetic and health benefits that shampoos formulated for people do. There are products that feature all-natural, herbal and botanical ingredients. There are low- and nonsudsing shampoos as well as products that incorporate insecticides, liniment and sunblocks. Some contain antibacterial agents while others are formulated to enhance coat color. How do you choose from such a diverse selection? Begin by sizing up your horse's specific needs.
Shampoo for skin challenges
Horses have notoriously sensitive skin, and some are more susceptible to irritation than others. If your horse has ever broken out in hives, you'll want to be particularly careful when choosing his shampoo. An aloe-based product can be a good choice, as can a shampoo that produces little or no lather, which will be easier to rinse away.
When introducing any new product, however, it's wise to make sure your horse isn't allergic to it. Cleanse a small area, such as a leg, with the new shampoo. If there's no sign of a reaction after 24 hours, go ahead and give your horse a full-blown bath.
It's not unusual for a horse's skin to become a little dry for a time after he has been shampooed. Temporary dryness is a relatively minor consequence of the loss of natural oils that occurs with bathing. It can, however, make the coat look dull and leave a horse itchy, which could cause him to rub his skin and tail. Using a shampoo that contains conditioners can help minimize dryness, as can a variety of "afterbath" products. It will also help if you bathe your horse as quickly and efficiently as possible. One method calls for soaping and then rinsing one side of your horse at a time, rather than simply cleansing from front to back or top to bottom.
If your horse's skin is persistently dry and flaky, he may be receiving too many baths or you may not be rinsing thoroughly enough. Try skipping a bath or two to give his skin a chance to replenish its natural oils. In addition, you may want to head off skin problems in more delicate areas by using cleansing solutions or wipes specifically designed for use on the face or around the genitals.
Finally, for a horse who has ringworm or other skin problems, a medicated shampoo is the best option. A variety of therapeutic shampoos, incorporating antifungal and/or antibacterial agents, are available.
Color your horse clean
If you are interested in a cosmetic--rather than therapeutic--effect, consider one of the many color-enhancing shampoos on the market. Most of these products work in one of two ways. Some contain dyes to match and enhance a horse's natural coat color. Others contain optical brighteners; they are absorbed by the hair and increase the coat's ability to reflect light, making it appear brighter or shinier. Many whitening shampoos work by adding a bluing agent to the coat. In natural light, this blue becomes neutral, making the white seem even whiter.
Julie Horn, who owns Acme Acres, a Paint breeding farm in Phoenix, Ariz., depends on color-enhancing shampoos for her multicolored horses. "The gold shampoos really do help bring out the color on the paler duns, buckskins, palominos and even cremellos," she says. "Red shampoos work wonderfully on sorrels and chestnuts. But if I'm trying to darken a chestnut coat to a rich, dark chestnut, I will use a black shampoo. I also use the black shampoo on darker duns, bay and blue roans, and, of course, on blacks and seal bays."
Horn has also inadvertently dyed her own skin, particularly her cuticles, when using colored shampoos on her horses. To minimize this potentially unsightly side effect, she recommends heavily moisturizing your hands for a couple of days before you bathe your horse as well as the day you use a colored shampoo. Wearing rubber gloves also is an option.
To get out tough stains
If you own a light-colored horse or one with white markings, at some point you will be faced with a tough stain that requires concentrated effort or perhaps the application of a special product to remove it.
A variety of deep-cleaning or spot-removing solutions are marketed for horses, and you'll also find several that can reduce staining in the first place. Waterless shampoos, also called dry or no-rinse shampoos, are popular for dealing with stains. These products are sprayed on the target area and rubbed out with a towel or rag. Any remaining residue is then brushed away. Products of this type contain surfactants to break up oil and dirt. Some include antibacterial ingredients and most have conditioners to counteract any drying effect of the surfactants. Many dry shampoos are marketed as spot removers, and they are especially handy in the winter, when it is too chilly for full baths.
To help prevent spots from appearing in the first place, Horn sprays her horses with a detangler after each bath, as soon as they are finished drip-drying. The silicone in the spray coats the hairs and makes it more difficult for stains to set. In addition to what's commercially available, two home remedies can help you take care of the telltale yellow stains that are a recurring problem for white- and light-tailed horses. Adding white vinegar or laundry bluing to the wash water can help to get out stains, and once your horse's tail is clean, a tail bag can help you to keep it that way.
Shampooed and ready to show
Good grooming is integral to showring success so people who compete tend to become expert at the art of bathing horses. To ensure that her Paints are at their head-turning best, Horn has developed a tried-and-true shampooing system. "The day before a show," she says, "all horses are unblanketed, worked and then bathed. We use a shampoo dispenser that injects shampoo with the water so that it gets down to the skin and blasts out all the dirt and sweat. This is especially effective on the legs and white areas. After shampooing, we will rinse and repeat if needed, and we typically use a whitening shampoo on the whites."
If you braid your horse, you may want to skip shampooing his mane prior to a show because it's easier to braid one that is not slippery clean, and the braids will hold better, too. Tails, on the other hand, look their best when they've been freshly shampooed and conditioned. A detangler, applied before brushing, will make the job easier and preserve the tail hair. Likewise, finish up by applying a conditioner to your horse's coat after a bath. Many of these products help resist dust, enhance shine and prevent stains. Some are specially formulated to treat hair damaged by sun, reduce static electricity or repel insects. Also, products containing sunscreen are a good choice for horses with sensitive skin or those whose coats are apt to bleach out during the summer.
Even when you use the highest quality shampoo available, you may have to invest some "sweat equity" to help your horse look his best. In fact, extremely dirty areas may require scrubbing with your fingers, a textured mitt or a currycomb instead of just a sponge. And, of course, a thorough scrubbing calls for an equally thorough rinse, which can try your patience and that of your horse.
However, done well, bathing can be among the most satisfying of your horsekeeping chores: When you're finished, the effects of your labors are evident immediately as your horse stands before you with his coat gleaming in the sun.
This article is excerpted from the longer feauture "Suds Savvy" that appeared in the April 2005 issue of EQUUS magazine.